On Sunday afternoon, the finance minister and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff met to discuss a sensitive topic: raising the retirement age in the Israel Defense Forces.
The public at large understands that the status quo, which lets every career soldier in the standing army - be they economists in the Kirya Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv or quartermasters in the logistics department in Ramat Gan - retire at age 42. Everyone understands that gargantuan pension budgets come at the expense of the IDF's strength, because money is limited. This meeting, like all the meetings that preceded it, did not produce a fair outcome. The only thing agreed upon was that there would be another meeting.
Last May, the government convened a discussion on the defense budget. The army pressured the treasury to remove clauses from the Economic Arrangements Bill that would have raised the retirement age. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz yielded to the pressure. In return, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi promised to submit a detailed, mutually agreeable plan for raising the retirement age within four months, or, to be more exact, by September 12. It's been five months since then, yet there is no plan, nor is there any agreement.
In June, Steinitz sent Ashkenazi a strongly worded letter demanding he begin working to raise the retirement age. At the time, Steinitz vowed that such a plan would be in place by the end of 2009. If the IDF refused to submit the report, then the treasury would do so, he said.
Ashkenazi, however, was not moved. He continued to mock Steinitz as well as the entire public.
Until very recently, the treasury had demanded that the career army be divided into three groups. One would be professionals to be civilianized, including engineers, economists, lawyers and mechanics. There is no reason for them to continue to wear army uniforms and enjoy the exceptional benefits extended to career officers.
The second group would be men and women in the IDF's home front, about 80 percent of people in the standing army. Instead of retiring at 42, these people would be allowed to retire at no younger than 57. There is no reason for people serving in the Kirya or logistics to receive 40 years (!) of pension pay at the public's expense.
The third group would be soldiers in combat units, 20 percent of the professional army. The retirement age for these people would be raised only slightly, from 42 to 46.
This plan needs to be implemented immediately, because currently, 65 percent of the domestically funded budget goes to wages, benefits, pensions, rehabilitation and routine acquisitions, while just 35 percent goes to rearmament. Twenty years ago, 65 percent of the budget was earmarked for force build-up.
The problem is that over the years, the treasury's budgets department has grown considerably softer. Rather than taking a forceful principled stance, budgets director Udi Nisan is now presenting far more lenient demands that meet the bare minimum. Under Nisan's plan, combat officers would retire at 45 while home front professionals would retire at 50 (rather than 57). Nisan wants the retirement age raised over the course of a decade, and wants further discussions in 2020.
Yet the army is not agreeing even to this humble demand. IDF officials want those who once served in combat or on a far-flung base to receive better retirement terms, at an age between 43 and 48. The army wants every officer who served six years in combat to be eligible for special retirement benefits, even if the rest of his career army service was spent in the Kirya or on the home front. On the other hand, non-commissioned officers who were not in combat would retire between the ages of 50 and 53.
Ashkenazi apparently does not grasp that he has a vested interest in rewarding the 20 percent of real combat troops who bear the burden of physical risk. This would clearly differentiate them from soldiers whose only brush with danger involves ice cream stains from the snack bar. The latter includes those whom Ashkenazi refers to as "his advisors," men who are based in the home front and thus have a clear conflict of interest.
Ashkenazi, after all, became chief of staff after serving in Golani. Thus he knows exactly how wide the gap is between those on the home front and those on the front. He knows that it would be wise to encourage a small group, because that is how to attract the best ones to the front, and this is critical for the IDF.
Thus the chief of staff must shake off the pressure from his advisors in the Kirya and pursue the revolution: retirement for combat troops at 46, retirement for home front soldiers at 57.
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